Allow us to introduce nine artists and designers who use everything from acrylic paint to their own bodies in the service of pushing the boundaries of beauty. Their creations offer resistance, innovation, delirious escape—and in an age of “alternative facts,” we need it all. These are the New Creatives.
On a steamy New York City summer night in 2015, Natalie White stripped down in the middle of a bustling Bowery art gallery and stepped inside a Plexiglas box, its floor carpeted with an American flag. This performance piece marked the beginning of “Natalie White for Equal Rights,” the feminist artist’s ongoing campaign aimed at renewing enthusiasm for the 94-year-old unratified Equal Rights Amendment.
The proposed legislation, which would constitutionally guarantee equal rights for women, died in Congress after failing to receive enough state ratifications. Had it succeeded, it would have been the first piece of inclusive women’s rights legislation in U.S. history. Now White, who has modeled nude for more than 50 photographers and was the first American woman featured in French playboy, is using her body in her own artwork to help carry gender equality across the finish line.
“People don’t want a lecture about women’s rights,” she says, “but I want to get the message out. So I’m using my sexuality as a tool. I’m taking back something that normally belongs to somebody else and turning my most vulnerable self into something that is empowering.”
White’s work takes an unapologetic approach to nudity. Consider the giant clothes-free self-portraits currently on view at Miami’s Bill Brady Gallery. Last June, she debuted a bronze sculpture of herself—naked but for combat boots and holding an American flag. She also staged a march from New York to Washington, D.C. Upon arrival, she painted e.r.a. now in front of the U.S. Capitol. She was jailed, tried and ultimately convicted of “defacing public or private property.” Given the goal, few would say her crime was unjustified. White’s efforts have turned her into something of a cause célèbre; Patricia Arquette and Lizzy Jagger testified in her favor. “If women want equal rights, we have to stop asking for them and start demanding them,” White says. “And if politicians won’t support us, we won’t support them.”
You’ve shot some of your large format, double-exposed self-portraits using the same 1978 photography kit as Andy Warhol and Chuck Close, noting how the complexities of the camera allow you to explore the complexities of intimacy and relationships. How do you define beauty in your work as a photographer?
I see beauty in the strangest places. I see it in straight lines, in curves and in all colors. I manipulate my body in ways to make those curves and lines. I use my body as the canvas and colored lighting as my paint.
You’ve posed nude for artists and photographers like Peter Beard, George Condo, Will Cotton, Spencer Tunick, Sean Lennon and your self-portraits are your signature as a photographer. For you, naked is clearly normal. How does nudity fit into how you identify as an artist?
As both the subject and the artist of most of my work, I have full control of the end result. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve covered up because they had shame. I am not ashamed of anything. I believe the only things you truly own in this world are your body and your mind. I use both while creating my work.
I strip down and turn my most vulnerable self into something empowering to me.
The homepage of your website features a video about the Equal Rights Amendment, in which you appear topless. How do you use nudity as a political tool?
If I was a poet, I would write poetry; if I was a singer, I would sing a song. I’m an artist, so I use the tools I was given to inspire change. In that video, I’m owning my sexuality and using it for women’s rights. I want to get information out to people about the ERA, no matter how. If that’s by looking at a video of me rolling around naked, then that’s how they get it, and I’ve accomplished what I set out and tried to accomplish.
When did you first begin fusing art and activism and nudity?
My friend Sarabeth Stroller helped inspire the film Free the Nipple. She was also the first person to tell me about the ERA. I had been aware of the gender pay gap in the U.S., and Sarabeth told me how the Equal Rights Amendment had never been ratified, around two days into my installation at the Hole gallery. That conversation ended up affecting that performance and my work for the next many years.
You belong to a group of creative women who are harnessing their visibility for political change. Who is doing what for women’s rights in your network?
Patricia Arquette is one of the most important figures in women’s rights in the world right now. What she has done with her platform is really an inspiration to me. Her Oscar speech for Boyhood in 2015, for example, where she took the time to speak about equal rights for women. Lizzy Jagger has been focusing on legislative change. She’s incredible. She will go up to the Hill, walk into a congressperson’s office, and sometimes get a meeting on the spot. Kamala Lopez made a documentary called Equal Means Equal. Anyone who cares about women’s rights should see it. All of the information in the film is presented in a really entertaining and concise way.
Who are some of the other artists who inspire you?
The feminist visual artist Carolee Schneemann. The way Marilyn Minter paints women is so beautiful and incredible. Ai Weiwei is one of my huge inspirations as a political artist.
How is your own brand of art-activism pushing the boundaries of beauty, particularly in such a volatile, unsettling political climate?
I have always seen myself as feminist, and I have always seen myself as an artist. I feel empowered by being the subject of my own work. I want to make other women feel empowered as well, through the feminist-oriented work that I do. It’s an artist’s job to reflect society. I see something I don’t like, and I’m showing it to people through art.
Natalie White’s latest show, A Muse Me, at Bill Brady Gallery in Miami, opens April 11. Visit molly.nyc/amuseme for more information.